Out of sight, out of mind

Recent surveys have shown children’s independent mobility has declined and that opportunities to play are much more restricted than they were in previous generations. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. For most children there is a higher level of adult surveillance than we would have been used to when we were younger but many children still play out unaccompanied by adults. It’s just that we have stopped noticing, in part because we believe the evidence of the same statistics.

‘We have given up haunting the places where children play, we no longer have eyes for their games, and not noticing them suppose they have vanished’. Children’s Games in Street and Playground – Iona and Peter Opie.

When One False Move was originally published in 1990 it showed that in 1971, 80 per cent of children were allowed to travel to school without adult supervision but by 1990, this had fallen to only 9 per cent. This survey was based on questionnaires of children and parents in schools rather than a direct observation of children, particularly their travel patterns when they played out within their own neighbourhoods. It certainly wasn’t our experience of Leeds at the time.

These grainy images are from a photographic project undertaken by Philip Sheridan and myself when we were playwork students at Leeds Metropolitan University in 1991.  We were asked to look at Rosebank Gardens, a small estate based in Radburn design principles which separated road traffic from pedestrians to see if this made any difference to children’s play. As playworkers, we were interested in investigating the specific interactions of children with their physical surroundings. We were influenced by the photographs of Ann Golzen in Colin Ward’s The Child in the City and by the field trips of Robin Moore in Childhood’s Domain. We found a much richer picture of children’s play lives, than presented by One False Move.


We didn’t see any children on our first visit early one Saturday morning but the evidence from archaeology of play: the worn paint on railings, broken branches on trees and discarded bread baskets in bushes told a different story. Later in the day, the area still appeared quiet but the more you looked the more you saw. Children were everywhere, climbing on the railings, swinging on the branches, building dens in the bushes, riding bikes and playing football in small spaces away from adults.

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Children did not just play out on the footpaths and low walls of the estate but also used the nearby terraced-street and the wild space – everywhere in fact where there weren’t cars – or at least where the traffic was slow enough to move the game to the side of the road and then re-appear when the cars had past.

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Children used anything and everything in their play. Children used found objects to built ramps for their bikes, bread baskets became wickets, incidental features such as the stone-work and railings became used as a climbing frame, and the sides worn over time used as a slide.

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20 years on I still see signs of children playing out, unnoticed by adults. Surveys and questionnaires provide only a partial picture of children’s independent mobility. We need more direct observation and engagement with children and families in their own neighbourhoods, not just in schools, if we are to create policies to support children playing out and to measure their success.

Steven Chown  is the Programme Manager at Play England.

7 Responses to “Out of sight, out of mind”
  1. Steve, nice piece, and thanks to Arthur for pointing to it. Your post coincides with me mulling about this. This is part of that mull.

    A number of things may be true, all at the same time. For example, like Mark, my observation is that, in general, youngsters without adults are not such a presence in shared communal or public space as previously. However, we must speak about class and culture, something not that prevelant so far as I can see when speaking about play. My observation now, and going back rather too far, is that if you’re ‘working class’ – remember that term? – living on a ‘council estate’ – remember that term as well? – or live in a working class area, kids on the street without adults supervising was common. And in at least some of the area I work in/stroll around, still is.

    It may be an endangered specie this playing out unsupervised, but like the resurgance of butterflys this year, at least some kids are clinging to the possibility living out an unsupervised freedom. Which, as I have discussed previously on my modest little blog, raises the question of just how significant or ultimately useful Street Play projects (and indeed Pop-up playgrounds) are.

    As it happens, I think they have an immediate practical utility for some kids, but they are predicated on ameliorating a dire situation not really confronting it – ameliorating it by going with the flow of adult and parental anxieties.

    The danger is – as in so many things – that these projects in effect accept the current terms of the debate, rather than working to reframe it. One might imagine that an independent Play England, of which there are rumours, may have a role here. Possibily. Only possibly at the moment.

    • Steven Chown - Play England says:

      Bernard. Thank you for your comments. Much has been made of the increase of traffic and the decline of independent mobility. I have a couple of untested notions about some of the other reasons for the decline in the visibility of children in public spaces. The first is around ‘geographical mobility’…how many parents live in the same places they grew up in? Is the fearfulness of the risk related to parents not knowing the area they live in? The second reason is the decline in adults being outdoors…hardly scientific but look at the street scenes of Poplar in the 40/50’s recreated in the BBC series ‘Call the Midwife’…adults hanging out washing, chatting with neighbours, reading the paper, repairing things, walking to work…children playing among adults who were also on the street. Children and adults sharing space was an accepted way of life. This isn’t about direct supervision. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I had a sense when I played out that the adults new me, knew where I lived and knew my parents. These are class and cultural issues. Street play projects are as much a way of challenging the cultural hegemony of the car, albeit briefly, by re-imagining what the street would look like without cars. One of the key principles is not to provide anything other than the time and space where children can play. They are as much a form of self-organisation and challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy as adventure playgrounds, which you have championed through your work with PLAYLINK. I loved your video about Glamis Adventure Playground – http://vimeo.com/29645438. You can’t blame people for being powerless, but admire and support their resilience and spirit to create something meaningful for their own children, which encourages community and a discussion of children’s place in that community and gives children an opportunity to invent meaning on their own doorstep. We can’t wait for the revolution, we have to act now.

  2. Mark Gladwin says:

    I agree about the need for fine-grained observation of what children do, and for genuine conversations, rather than relying solely on formal research techniques, if we are to understand the reality of outdoor play. And it’s good to see those old Rosebank photos again! But when I think about my own neighbourhood in York now, or about Bradford ten years ago, where I spent time looking quite hard for signs of children playing out, I am inclined to accept the conventional view that in many places, outdoor play has indeed declined even since the 1990s.

    • If we are to look at the factors – including the increase in traffic – behind the decline in children’s outdoor play we also need look at neighbourhoods and streets that buck this trend. This may be two sides of the same coin. But local housing, planning and transport policy needs to look at how the whole environment can be used for play, including access to designated and non-designated spaces for children to play.

  3. janeoutdoorplay says:

    reminds me of Fort Apache, and the recent work we did there with Play Torbay, and naomi outdoor play and the Good from Woods research, along side Exploring. Nature Play …we tried questionnaires etc, but it was only in observation and conversation did we hear the true story of their play and community … Time, trust and understanding …if we don’t make space for this within evaluation of play then i don’t think we are doing the playworkers or children justice.

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